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LAPD hiring squabble escalates

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Times Staff Writers

A long-simmering fight over money to expand the Los Angeles Police Department has become suddenly shrill amid shaky city finances, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warning that the squabble threatens his pledge to put more officers on city streets.

The battle pits Villaraigosa, who led a campaign last year to pay for the police expansion by raising garbage fees, against Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a former LAPD chief and frequent critic of the department’s current leader, William J. Bratton.

At the core of the dispute is a one-sentence proposal by a council committee chaired by Parks that would give the City Council greater say over the pace of police hiring. Parks wants to hold the line at a net gain of 226 officers this fiscal year, while Villaraigosa wants the freedom to hire more if finances allow.

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As the council prepares to take up the matter today, the mayor -- who campaigned on a pledge to add 1,000 officers -- is fuming. He vowed again Thursday to veto any council action that he perceives as a threat to his police-hiring goal.

Villaraigosa repeatedly has credited the city’s growing police force as the primary reason behind L.A.’s dropping crime rate. The department now has 9,517 sworn officers, up from 9,181 when Villaraigosa took office in July 2005. Villaraigosa’s goal is to reach at least 10,000.

“I’m not going to allow anybody in this town to deter us from growing this Police Department,” Villaraigosa told the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. on Thursday during a speech in Universal City. “There is nothing more important in this town than keeping it safe.”

Parks, a fiscal conservative, on Thursday called the dispute with Villaraigosa “mind-boggling.” He said that the budget committee he chairs had recommended only that the mayor stay within his original spending plan. Parks also questioned whether Villaraigosa could veto the budget committee’s recommendation.

Last year, Villaraigosa and the council hammered out an agreement on the increased trash fees: The new money would go directly to the city’s general fund, which, in turn, would free up dollars to hire more police.

Many at City Hall say the current tussle about the police hiring involves an underlying power struggle over who will wield budget authority over the LAPD.

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Several people said privately that Parks was trying to micromanage LAPD hiring and maintain a semblance of control over a department he once led. Former Mayor James K. Hahn replaced Parks with Bratton in 2002. Parks has been a frequent critic of the LAPD, alleging that Bratton has overstated the drop in crime and that the department refuses to rein in spending.

Parks said he wasn’t trying to meddle in the LAPD. “There are individuals who don’t want to talk about the meat of the issue; they’d rather talk about the message,” he said.

Parks and the mayor have clashed on other fronts. Last month, Parks voted for a $95,000 settlement for the city transportation chief whom Villaraigosa had fired -- a move that the mayor saw as a rebuke. The mayor has chided Parks for not moving faster on eliminating the council’s willingness to absorb costs for events held by private groups.

The conflict comes as Los Angeles faces several fiscal woes. Property tax revenues are down, the municipal budget is facing a $75-million shortfall, and the city could lose up to $270 million in telephone-users taxes that are the subject of litigation.

Council President Eric Garcetti sought to downplay the quarrel, saying the council would patch over any differences at today’s hearing. “We are united in this front . . . assuring that all Angelenos know that the promises we made are good,” he said.

But the dispute has prompted other council members to parse their words carefully.

“I think the dialogue is healthy and will motivate the council and mayor to work together,” said Councilman Ed Reyes. “But I worry about this because I don’t want gang members and other elements who prey on our community to believe there are going to be less police.”

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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